When our ancestors left Italy in search of opportunity, and a better life, they brought with them their Italian traditions.
Today Italian-Americans respect and honor their heritage by maintaining customs learned from their parents and grandparents. Three of these well-known traditions include: the naming of children, Christmas Eve celebrations, and wedding cookie tables.
Naming of children
In Italy, there is a very specific tradition of the way children are named, dating back to the sixteenth century. It continues today, especially in the southern regions of Italy, and many Italian-Americans also carry on the custom.
The first son is given the father’s father’s name. The second son is given the mother’s father’s name. The first daughter is given the father’s mother’s name. The second daughter is given the mother’s mother’s name. Other children are often given the names of their parents, or unmarried aunts and uncles.
Not everyone chooses to follow this naming pattern. For those who do not, patron saints’ names are often used. Choices become either the patron saint of the town, or the patron saint whose feast day falls near the expected birth date of the child.This is how my family chose our names. My birthday is at the end of September, and since St Margaret’s feast day is close enough, October 17, my parents chose Margaret as my name.
Another variation of the naming process occurs when the first born child is a girl, and some parents wish to show respect by naming her after the paternal grandfather. She would be given some variation of his name, such as Giuseppa for Giuseppe or Filippa for Filippo.
One other departure from tradition occurs when the first born or second born child either died, or was not expected to survive. The name would be given to the next child born, which can become confusing for those doing genealogy research.
Christmas Eve celebrations
The Christmas Eve dinner has traditionally been celebrated with various fish dishes, usually seven but in some instances, up to 13. These could include baccala, clams, whitefish, eel, shrimp, mussels and calamari. Christmas Eve is the vigil of the feast, Christmas, so typically meat is avoided.
Although this custom originated in southern Italy, not all areas adhere to this tradition. Angela Savoca, my Sicilian friend, stated that her family has never celebrated Christmas Eve dinner with the traditional seven fishes.
Angela was born and raised in Cesaro, Sicily, an inland mountainous area, the same village where my grandparents were born.
Angela clarified that the mountainous inland regions do not have any fresh seafood, as do like the coastal towns and cities, where this tradition is more frequently practiced. Many Italian-Americans today prepare the vigil meal the same way their ancestors did, depending on which region of Italy they claimed as their home. So now you know why my family never practiced that tradition.
Wedding cookie tables
Food being paramount to any Italian celebration, the traditional wedding feast is the epitome of endless amounts and varieties of food, particularly the cookie table. Most other American cultures are content with the traditional wedding cake, but when you attend a traditional Italian wedding, you know that you are going to be treated to much more.
In addition to the wedding cake, there is a long table filled with plates, piled high with home-made Italian cookies. For weeks prior to a wedding, the bride’s aunts, grandmothers, and cousins get together, and bake thousands of cookies, and freeze them, to be served later, at the wedding. Usually you will find pignoli cookies, S-shaped cookies, traditional wedding balls, biscotti, pizzelles, fig cookies, and all varieties of almond flavored cookies.
In some areas, there is a tradition of a cookie dance, where the bride and groom dance, leading the guests to the cookie table, where they help themselves to cookies. There are also stories of cookie cakes, where a cake has been fashioned by layering cookies higher and higher to resemble a wedding cake. Pastel colored almonds are used with icing in between the cookies to hold them together. When a friend’s son got married several years ago in Texas, he wanted a cannoli cake. The family hand carried the shells and the filling on the plane from New Jersey, and constructed the cake for the wedding.Italian-Americans are proud of their traditions, which revolve around their most meaningful values. Click To Tweet
What Italian traditions does your family practice? I’d love to hear them. Please share your memories and leave a comment.
Cookie tables are very popular in the Youngstown, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania areas. In Youngstown you find them at most of our weddings regardless of ethnicity. I was surprised to see it identified as an Italian tradition.
Thank you, Roslyn. I used to live in Youngstown and am well aware of the large cookie tables at weddings. I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio but live in Florida now. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting
Vino Travels (@VinoTravels21)
Those are great tidbits I didn’t know about. Thanks!
Thanks so much, Jenn. I always like learning new things too
Thank you Jeff!!!! Yes I have many memories of those cookie tables at weddings!!!!!
What an interesting read! I never knew about the naming tradition. How wonderful to keep everyone in the family alive forever! And that Italian wedding-cookie table sounds YUM-A-LICIOUS!! Now I just need to find me an Italian wedding. LOL!
Diane Donofrio Angelucci
In our family, my dad always made his own homemade sausage, which we ate on Christmas Eve on fresh Italian rolls. It is so good! My parents also used to make cookies that came to be known as pansies, but were called caccunes (sp)? I’m not sure how it was spelled, but I did find something that sounds similar online–Cagionetti. This is a deep-fried ravioli-like cookie filled with chocolate, ground chickpeas, orange peel, nuts, grape jelly, raisins and more.
OMG Diane, Now I’m hungry for sure…Thanks so much for this interesting story
Ann Marie Bryant
Enjoyed the history, especially about how children were named….
Thank you Ann Marie
This is a great post. I’m first generation Italian and have been to ItAly 10 times. I love visiting there. The food is incredible! All my family is there. I love cannoli s but the Neapolitan pastries are to die for!
Thank you ! You are right. Naples has some amazing pastries like BaBà and sfogliatelle
Un po' di pepe
Ha ha, that is how we were all named. I am soooooo thankful my Nonna had a nice name and was not named Agrippina or Addolorata! I believe the ‘Feast of the 7 fishes’ is purely a North American Italian thing. Fish is eaten in many parts of italia on Christmas Eve, but not in a specific number of dishes. My family has the same Christmas Eve seafood feast on Good Friday. Those are 2 days I really look forward to! Now I’m craving grilled octopus! Ciao, Cristina
Lovely! I especially like the comment about the “7 Fishes” tradition. I’ve had Italians tell me it doesn’t exist and others who tell me they celebrate every year!
Last week I visited Sutton Hoo in Suffolk (UK) where there is a Saxon burial site. Your post made me think more about it. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes did exactly the same sort of thing 1.500 years ago and brought their traditions and customs to the British Isles. History goes around in circles and always repeats itself! Thanks for a thought-provoking post!
This post made me very hungry. 🙂
Love the naming tradition! I did a post on LAST names…but never even thought about first names….fabulous!
Many thanks Diana. I will have to check that post of your out!
I’m Italian, born, raised and living in Milan. Northern Italian traditions are very different.
As to the Christmas Eve dinner, it has never been a tradition in Northern Italy, where the time for celebration with food is Christmas Day lunch instead. No seafood tradition either. Christmas food is more about risotto, turkey or cockerel, ravioli or tortellini with broth. For believers, Christmas Eve is rather a time for prayer and faithful expectation and people attend Midnight Mass. When you come out of church, a band will be playing Christmas carols in the piazza and people will exchange wishes, eat a slice of panettone and drink vin brulé.
I’ve never seen or heard of a “cookie table” at weddings. The most common thing is that extra cookies are served with the espresso coffee at the end of the dinner/lunch, besides the wedding cake, but this is the standard in many restaurants, too.
In the North, people stopped applying the naming pattern sometime in the first half of the 20th century.
Thank you for this current update from Milano. as you’ll notice many traditions in America by Italian-Americans are somewhat different from how Italians celebrate today in Italy. Grazie
Nellie Sheridan Wilson Statue
Great blog! I too try to keep up with the traditions of my Calabrian heritage. Being an Italian-American is truly a gift 🙂
While I am an Italiphile (sp), I am not Italian. Being Irish we are all about Saints names but my family had another little quirk. The first born girl always gets the middle name of Jean. I am Bonnie Jean, My mother was Bette Jean and I have a grandchild named Rebecca Jean. Hopefully she will carry that on. Even my sister who was not a Jean named her daughter Donna Jean.
And Margie, I loved this little story. It went well with my morning coffee!
How interesting about the middle name Jean and how everyone in your family has it! Thanks Bonnie
We celebrate Christmas Eve by sharing Seven Fishes with friends. A lot of work, but my favorite event of the year.
Great to keep those Italian traditions alive, Nancy! Thanks for commenting, Cara!
Margie, this was a really nice posting with great pictures. I’m not Italian but probably should have been. My best trips ever were to Italy and I’m an Italian food nut. Maybe I’ll see you at our 50th reunion next year.
Thanks so much Jim! I’m glad you have been able to experience the beauty if Italy and the tastiness of their food! Yes I plan on the 2016 reunion. If you hear any details, dates, etc, please share
Learned more new things! For all the years I lived in Southern Italy I never knew these things. Though I did experience all the seasons, holidays and events in food, I understand the reasons better now. Love your blog, Margie!
Thank you Sherry. I am learning new things every day too!
Interesting stuff – thanks!
With my father’s side from Umbria and my mother’s side from Sicily I had sort of mixed tradition. We never did the seven fishes on either side of the family however. For us it was sausage and peppers on Christmas Eve and lasagna on Christmas Day. Every Italian wedding I have been to has include the cookies and confetti.
And that makes sense especially if your family in Italy did not live near the sea!
On Christmas we gathered at my Grandmothers house where we were treated to,her home-made sausage, salad,roasted chestnuts and cherries soaked in whiskey,also loupines. Andrea Cook
Thank you Andrea for sharing your family traditions. I am always curious as to what others have done.
Our Italian side of the family would have all the seafood on Christmas Eve and Wedding Soup with some kind of pasta in red sauce with meatballs and sausage on Christmas Day and then later desserts were brought out.
This sounds like a lovely tradition, Jim. Thank you for sharing
I do love your blog. I wonder if you would add my blog site to your list that is on the right hand side of your blog posts? DollyTravels.com
I would appreciate that.
Ciao for now, Dolly
Thanks so much for the kind words, Dolly. I have just added your blog to the list! Enjoy traveling in Paris. I am there with you in spirit, thanks to your blog posts and photos!
Sure Dolly. I know you follow me. I thought I had it there!!!
Love this very good explanation of Italian customs.
Thank you, Dolly. I appreciate that so much!